1898-9.—The regiment, 623 strong, under command of Lieut.-Colonel B. D. Moller, arrived in South Africa on October 28th, 1898, and was quartered at Ladysmith from November 9th, 1898, till September 25th of the next year.
Our quarters at Ladysmith were not pleasant ones, as a short description of that cheerless spot by one of the officers of the regiment may prove:—'' The camp consists of rows of corrugated iron huts, which strike one at first sight as only wanting a tall chimney to make the resemblance to some factory complete. It lies on a patch of bare ground about a mile and a half west of the town, to reach which one must follow a dusty bumpy apology for a road through a bleak stretch of country. In spite of all attempts at sanitary improvements, the camping ground remains plague smitten, and a military funeral is almost a daily occurrence. Continually enveloped in clouds of dust, the barracks present a gloomy appearance. Rocky treeless hills overlook the cheerless camp, and the river Klip curls round it, skirting the sun-baked kopjes. In such a place you forcibly lead a monotonous kind of existence; there are no pleasures or excitements to dispel that depressing influence, which, like a dark threatening cloud, devoid of any silver lining, hangs over all. One dismal day follows another with painful regularity. It is a place to look back upon with horror, a chip from Dante's Inferno and one created for the damned. Such I found Ladysmith in times of peace."
Major-General Penn-Symons was, in September, 1898, in command of the troops in Natal, the towns of Maritzburg and Ladysmith forming their two stations. They had been strengthened by the addition of a couple of battalions during the months of August and September.
August, 1899.—The troops, however, were few in number, two regiments of Cavalry, three or four battalions of Infantry, three batteries of Field Artillery, and one mountain battery comprising the total force. Reinforcements, however, were on their way from India, and, chiefly owing to the anxiety of the civil authorities to guard the northern territories of Natal, General Symons, on Sunday, September 24th, ordered a force, consisting of the 18th Hussars, one company M.I. Leicestershire Regiment, one battalion Leicester Regiment, the Dublin Fusiliers, 13th and 67th F.B.R.A., and a detachment of R.E., all under command of Colonel Moller, to proceed at once to the neighbourhood of Dundee.
In compliance with this order, the 18th had left Ladysmith at 10 a.m. on the 25th of September, after hurriedly packing up their belongings all the previous night. Colonel Pickwoad, R.A., was in command of the column, which comprised all the mounted troops of the Glencoe Field Force.
The account of their march up the Biggarsberg Pass, given here, is taken from the diary of an officer of the Regiment who took part in it:—" It was a fine morning, and many people assembled to see us off. Our first march took us past Elandslaagte, and ended at Sunday's river, about twenty miles from Ladysmith, and roughly halfway to Dundee. At about two a.m. next morning I was suddenly woken by the sound of galloping in our direction. It turned out to be a Natal Carabinier and a Natal Policeman, who had left Dundee at 11 p.m. the previous night, and had ridden hard through the inky darkness to reach us and bring us most urgent orders. We were to saddle up and resume our march on Dundee with all despatch, and try and reach the top of the Biggarsberg Pass before daylight. From information gained it was fully expected the Boers intended to occupy this pass and oppose our advance. The men were accordingly roused from their sleep, but no noise or trumpet calls were allowed. In silence the men saddled up, the transport mules were inspanned, and the guns limbered up. After a hasty breakfast at our mess cart, whilst the men were getting ready, I hurried off to join my squadron. Colonel Pickwoad had seen no cause to hurry, and seemed to pin little faith on the report just come in, so it was not much before 3.30 a.m. when we resumed our march. It was chilly and pitch-dark when we picked our way towards the road which led to the Biggarsberg. Soon after starting a spruit with very steep banks rather delayed the transport, but no further delay occurred for the next eight miles, when we halted to allow the transport to close up. It was, however, clear we could never reach the Biggarsberg in time unless we abandoned our transport, and this we could not do. It was 8 a.m. when we reached the foot of the pass. Here we halted whilst our squadron was sent forward to reconnoitre through the pass. Presently a scout came galloping back to report that firing was distinctly heard ahead, and this news was soon confirmed by another scout. The flutter of excitement caused by this intelligence was not of long duration, as shortly afterwards the pass was reported quite clear, and what had been taken for heavy firing turned out to be only blasting operations. It was quite a pretty ride through the Biggarsberg, a pleasant change from the dusty uninteresting country we had hitherto ridden over. It was, too, a matter of congratulation that our advance had been unopposed, for had the Biggarsberg been even only held by a weak party of Boers, never could we have successfully forced a passage through this very formidable pass. As we filed up the narrow track I realised the advantage we had gained, and the satisfaction we ought to feel at having met with no opposition. The pass is commanded on every side by strong kopjes, where Boers could, in perfect safety, have lain concealed. From behind the numerous boulders and trees they could have fired into us at their leisure, without our being in a position to inflict any appreciable harm in return. At midday the last wagon of our column had reached the summit, and from thence on to Glencoe was quite a short ride."
The Infantry were sent by train, the Cavalry marched up the Glencoe Pass and the guns with them, and all encamped on a ridge about a mile west of Dundee town.
During the march up from Ladysmith one of the Intelligence guides, Allison by name, brought to Dundee, where Colonel Moller and the Infantry had already arrived, a report that the Boers were advancing to hold Glencoe Pass. Allison was sent on the night of the 25th September to meet the column marching up from Ladysmith; he reached them at 2 a.m. next day, and during their march up the pass some blasting explosions near the road gave some colour to his story, but it was quite a false alarm, and would have been an impossible task for the Boers to have carried out.
On September 27th the Dublin Mounted Infantry joined the force, which was now named the Glencoe Field Force.
During the ensuing days at Dundee patrols were sent out in all directions daily, to the Navigation colleries, round Impati Mountain, to the drifts on the Buffalo River (De Beers, Landsman, Vants), to Biggarsberg Nek, and along the Newcastle Road as far as Ingagane. At night piquets were placed on all the main approaches.
The Cavalry and Mounted Infantry had hard work, as the distances were long and the weather bad, for the rains had just broken at that period in upper Natal.
One squadron of the 18th Hussars was sent to Helpmakaar, under command of Major Marling, on September 30th, to reconnoitre the country near the Buffalo and to return to Dundee next day, their object also being to restore confidence to the Police Post stationed out there.
On October 2nd, Captain the Hon. H. S. Davey took a patrol of the 18th Hussars as far as Ingagane bridge, halting for the night at Dannhauser; he found the country quiet.
On Sunday, October 1st, Major-General Symons came up from Ladysmith to inspect the camp, and returned early on Monday morning*.
During this week the troops from India commenced to arrive at Durban, and were despatched up country as quickly as possible, and by the end of the second week in October the force at Glencoe consisted of the following :—
13th, 67th, and 69th Field Batteries R.A.
1st Leicestershire Regiment and 100 Mounted Infantry.
1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 100 Mounted Infantry.
1st King's Royal Rifle Corps and 75 Mounted Infantry.
1st Royal Irish Fusiliers.
Detachment Army Service Corps.
Detachment Royal Engineers.
Detachment Army Ordnance Corps.
Half the 18th and 24th Field Hospitals.
One Troop Natal Police.
One Troop Natal Carabineers.
making a rough total of about 3,700 men and 800 horses. There was no further increase to the Glencoe Field Force. On Monday, October 8th, Colonel Gunning arrived, and took over command of the force from Colonel Moller, but Brigadier-General Yule, arriving on Wednesday the 10th, relieved him almost at once, and on Friday, the 12th, Major-General Penn Symons, C.B., came up with his staff and took command of the Glencoe Division as it was now called, General Yule having the command of the Infantry Brigade given him, and it was designated "8th Brigade."
From an officer's diary :—" It was on the 12th of October he, General Symons, came to stay. I remember it well. A severe thunderstorm in the night was followed by a cold wet morning, and the camp presented the usual bedraggled appearance which a real soaking produces. We had just finished breakfast, and were standing in mackintoshes and gum boots outside the mess tent, when General Symons, accompanied by his Staff, arrived. He stopped and greeted us in his usual cheery manner, and introduced us to the officers of his Staff. They had already partaken of breakfast at Glencoe Station, so declined our offer of providing them with any. Whilst we were talking a telegram was handed to the General, and, on reading it, a look of supreme satisfaction spread over his genial countenance, a look which was reflected in ours when he announced the contents. The South African Republic had declared war against Great Britain, and Mr. Egerton Green had left Pretoria. War was actually declared the previous day, October 11th. It came as no surprise, for, of course, after Kruger's impertinent ultimatum, we knew war to be inevitable."
General Symons' Staff consisted of the following officers : Colonel Beckett, A.A.G., Major Hammersley, D.A.A.G., Lieut. Murray, A.D.C. General Yule's Staff comprised Lieut.-Col. Sherston, Brigade Major; Lieut. Kenrick, Signalling Officer; Captain Vallancey, Provost Marshal; and Major Murray, Intelligence Officer.
After the heavy rain of October 12th it was found necessary to shift camp to a ridge close by, which lay between the old camp and the town of Dundee.
October 12th.—The news of the declaration of war between the South African Republics and England was received by telegram from the Government, Maritzburg, about ten a.m. on Friday morning, October 12th, and everyone seemed glad that the period of expectation was over, and that the matter was to be settled one way or the other at last.
A good many '' guides '' had by now assembled at the camp at Glencoe, both Natal Colonists and natives, and a great deal of information was brought in every day. The enemy had apparently been collected in force for some time back, before the declaration of war, for the most part at Zandspruit, beyond Volksrust, and between Wakkerstroom and Utrecht, and afterwards at Doornberg over the Buffalo, on the north-west of the Dundee-Vyrheid road.
The Boers on their side had much better information than we had, and knew of our every movement. About one in ten only of the local farmers round Dundee was trustworthy, and the town itself was honeycombed with spies, but we took little or no precautions to shift them.
The two bodies of Natal local troops attached to the force were now of great help in showing our mounted troops the country and in getting information from the natives, but the local population were more Dutch than English, and the information gained wanted a good deal of sifting.
On Friday, October 13th, the Dublin Fusiliers were sent off from Dundee to Ladysmith on information to hand that the Free State Boers were marching" down Tintwa Pass. It was a false alarm, and the Dublins came back to Dundee at midnight on Sunday, the 15th, after a very uncomfortable journey.
For the first two or three days after the declaration of war no news of importance was gathered. On Sunday, the 15th, a patrol of the 18th Hussars, under Lieut. Thackwell, encountered about twenty-five of the enemy near De Jaager's Drift on the Buffalo, where they had crossed to loot a store on our side of the river, and had captured five men of the Natal Police there. They endeavoured to cut off our patrol, which was a weak one, but did not succeed.
Lieut. Thackwell gives the following account of what took place:—" I took a patrol to the Buffalo River and went to Landsman's Drift. Proceeded up the banks of the river to near De Jaager's Drift, where I saw a patrol of Boers, about thirty-four strong; they retreated at first, but when they saw our strength they tried to encircle us and cut us off from camp. We retired, however, through Gregory's Nek, and they followed us for about two miles and then re-crossed the river. We afterwards saw a party cross Landsman's Drift. They must have been sent to cut us off if we had returned the same way as we came out.''
The beginning of the week saw fresh developments. Newcastle was abandoned by the civil population, while the natives from the Navigation and Campbell collieries, and a good many from the ones at Dundee itself, commenced to trek back to their Kraals. A company of Infantry was sent to the coal mine at Dundee at Mr. Wright's (the manager) request, to give protection to those who were left.
Besides this outlying piquet, we had, at that time, a company at Glencoe Junction and one section on the road there, about a mile out of camp. By night we had piquets from the 18th Hussars and Mounted Infantry at each of the following spots (the piquets consisted of twelve non-commissioned officers and men, under an officer):—
(1) Manager's House of South African Coalfields on Helpmakaar Road;
(2) Junction of Landman's Drift and Vant's Drift Road;
(3) Junction of Dundee-Newcastle and Glencoe-Newcastle Roads, and at
(4) Dr. Schultze's Farm on De Jaager's Drift Road.
There were other Infantry piquets besides nearer in on the approaches to camp. We had now collected about forty days' supplies of all sorts, and it had originally been intended to bring up sixty days " Woolwich Supplies " and thirty days local ones, but this could not be managed. Ammunition was short, a much needed requisition for a further supply was not attended to in time, and on its arrival at Ladysmith the line was blocked, and the train to bring it up could not get through. The Infantry had a fair supply, about 50,000 rounds a battalion, but the Artillery were very badly off.
On Tuesday, October 17th, the Boers hoisted the Transvaal flag at Newcastle, and came on at once along the railway to Hatting Spruit, where they checked for a day or two. About 2,000 of them, however, branched off from there, and were seen by our scouts, on Wednesday, the 18th, moving down the Biggarsberg Nek. On Thursday, the 19th, we sent three companies of the Dublin Fusiliers to the Navigation Collieries to bring in some 1,000 bags of mealies, which had been stacked there for the natives working on the mine. A few Boers watched them from the surrounding ridges, but they did what they wanted to, and got back to Dundee about 8.30 p.m., one company remaining at Glencoe Junction to await the arrival of part of a train from Ladysmith, which had been left at Wessels Nek Station, as the engine was unable to pull the whole train up the pass. This train, with another one, had left Ladysmith early in the day, and had been fired on at Elandslaagte Station, and the rear train had been captured by the Boers. The engine of the front train was a good deal bullet-marked, but it had to go back to Wessels Nek to bring up the portion of the train it had left behind, and at about 9.30 p.m. this portion was brought up, and the company then retired to Dundee, as the post, which at first had been occupied at Glencoe Junction, had been for the past few days withdrawn.
Piquets were out as usual on Thursday night, and at 2 a.m. information came in from the Dublin Fusilier one at Vant's Drift-Landsman's Drift post to say that some scouts of the enemy were advancing from the direction of the latter drift, and that the piquet had had to retire. On receipt of this news two companies of the Dublin Fusiliers were sent to the far side of Dundee to support the piquet, but they did not gather any more information about the enemy, and at 5 a.m. a Staff officer was sent round the various units to say that they need not stand to their arms " any longer. They had been doing so since just before daybreak, according to daily custom since the declaration of war. However, a few minutes later, groups of men were seen lining the summit of Talana Hill and Lennox Hill, the smaller one to the south of it, and it soon became evident that they were hauling guns up the reverse side of the slope.
We learnt later on that they had crossed Landsman's Drift, some 4,000 to 6,000 in numbers, Burghers of the Utrecht, Wakkerstroom, Middelburg, Vyrheid, and Piet Retief commandoes, under General Lucas Meyer and Commandant Christian Botha, at 9 p.m. on the 19th October, and, marching all night, had reached Talana Hill at daybreak on the 20th. They had with them four field guns, two Vickers Maxims, and a detachment of Staats Artillerie. Their movement was planned in conjunction with that of a larger column which was intended to march by the Newcastle-Dundee direct road, seize Impati Mountain, and attack our camp on the 20th from that side as well, but, luckily for the Glencoe Field Force, the Boer General, Erasmus, who was in command of this second column, bungled his work, and did not arrive on Impati till midday on the 21st.
A third Boer column was to head off any sally made by the Ladysmith garrison, and then hem in the Glencoe force from the rear; this column was, however, effectually put off its scheme by our troops at Elandslaagte.
The country round Dundee is hilly, and, though actually round the town itself the hills are undulating, a good many of the others, a little way off, are very steep and stony. About 5,000 yards from the town, and nearly west of it, lies Impati Mountain, between five and six thousand feet above the level of the sea. It is a typical South African mountain, steep at the sides and flat on the top, the summit is about a mile in extent and semi-circular in form, with the outer face of the semi-circle facing Newcastle, and the horns pointing inwards towards Glencoe, that one farthest from Dundee ending with a more gradual slope, and running in a long ridge almost up to Glencoe Junction. This ridge shuts out the main railway line and the Newcastle road, after it crosses the ridge, from the camp.
On the north and north-east sides of the town a small range of hills borders the Helpmakaar road, and a distance of about 2,000 yards separates this range from the town at the nearest point. Talana Hill forms the north-western extremity of this range, and the road to Vant's and Landsman's Drifts runs between it and Lennox Hill, the next one in the range on the south-eastern side.
Between Talana Hill and Impati Mountain the country is open, but intersected by several rather deep watercourses.
On the south side the country rises gradually to the Biggarsberg range, about five to six miles off, Indumeni Mountain, over 7,000 feet high, being almost south of Dundee and some five miles from it.
The Biggarsberg range runs nearly east and west past the south side of Glencoe Junction, which is almost four miles from camp, and it is met there by the spur running down from Impati Mountain, of which mention has previously been made.
Towards Newcastle, Hatting Spruit, etc., and towards the westward, large undulating hills, here and there broken by small rocky kopjes, roll away to the lower slopes of the Drakensberg.
Impati Mountain and Indumeni Mountain were visited by General Symons, and by all officers who could accompany him, during the early part of this week. A description of the ascent of the former, written by one of those who went with him, is inserted here:—" In the orders of Monday evening appeared a notice that the General intended to ride up Impati Mountain the next day, and all officers who cared to accompany him would be welcome. This mountain lies to the west of Dundee, and overlooked our camp. It is about 6,000 feet high, has a broad flat top nearly a mile long, devoid of trees, and on its south-eastern side its slopes are precipitous. From the summit one gets a fine extensive view of the country, the various hills and gorges, the open plains extending to the Buffalo, intersected here and there by winding spruits, and far away in the distance one catches a glimpse of the mountains in Zululand, near to which the Prince Imperial met his death. All officers who could be spared from duty collected near the General's tent at 9 a.m. that Tuesday morning. We must have numbered at least fifty, and, now I come to think of it, we ran no small risk, for had the Boers, whom we knew to be no great distance off, taken it into their heads to attack us that morning, whilst the officer commanding and most of his Staff and other officers were engaged in toiling up the slopes of Impati, things would have been mighty unpleasant for the Glencoe Field Force. Or supposing this unsuspecting party of excursionists, personally conducted by the General, had been taken prisoners, what a beginning' to the war! Such a catastrophe was, no doubt, hardly likely, but not an impossibility. The half company of Mounted Infantry, who escorted us, were our only safeguard. On the way we stopped to examine the waterworks which supply Dundee with water, then a long circuitous path led us to the summit. The last part had been very steep, and a severe pull up for the ponies, but, once the top was reached, our climb was well rewarded by the glorious panorama which was spread before us. We got a magnificent birds-eye view of the surrounding country. Just below us lay the tents of the camp, and beyond them the small town of Dundee. On Impati we found a signalling post situated, a few men of the 18th Hussars under Captain Davey. We heard that, shortly before our arrival, a suspicious-looking individual had been detected watching the camp through field glasses, but that, before they could get up to him, he had mounted his pony, scrambled down the side of the mountain at the risk of his neck, and made for a farmhouse which we could plainly see below. The man, they said, was still inside the farmhouse, as they had never ceased watching it, and his pony was still tied up under a tree outside. Captain Lonsdale, of the Dublin Fusiliers, who was in command of the Mounted Infantry which had accompanied us up, asked the General whether he might ride down and try to capture this spy. The General having no objection, Lonsdale sallied forth with a few of his men. I sat down to await events, but as he had a long ride before him and I had to get back to camp, I did not wait for the denoument, but I heard afterwards that the farm had been drawn blank, the bird had flown away, and the house had been found stripped of every stick of furniture."